Storytelling Portraits by Laura Spector
Storytelling Portraits by Laura SpectorClick thumbnail to view full-size
Portraits with stories to tell
I've been in Thailand making my way as a visual artist for a number of years. I typically create artwork with my collaborator, Chadwick Gray; and for about 15 years at this point and we make all kinds of cross -disciplinary artwork together. Over the years, I have had several people ask me if I ever make work on my own. Typically, I do not, however I was struck with an inexplicable desire one day to paint portraits. I had been drawing from the figure for about two years at that point, working within a group of artists from the local community. Something inside clicked, and I decided I needed a more personal one-on-one experience with the model; I had an interest in hearing their story, rather than projecting my own onto them upon drawing their physique.
I promptly started taking inventory of some of the more interesting local personalities, people who have done fascinating things in their lifetimes, or were successful and living out a fulfilling life in Thailand. I also wanted to paint from people who were good at telling stories. So, it seemed a perfect fit that I would begin my portrait painting journey by asking journalists and writers to come in and sit for me. Given that most of them are busy people, writing or partying at night...I had to compromise and ask them if they would do a sitting for me for a maximum of 3 hours. I would paint in oil on canvas and see how it went. I started calling friends and lining up appointments.
I had never painted a portrait from a live model before, especially one that would be talking and perhaps even moving around. As it turned out, most of them were pretty good models and were able to keep still. I painted their lips last, as they would have to be quiet while I finished. Of course, when I asked them to sit for me, several people were concerned that I would have them take off their clothes, which for some reason seems to be the stigma of working with an artist. (While I won't discourage people from taking their clothing off and sitting in front of me naked for 3 hours, it wasn't really necessary.) I let them off the hook and told them to come in the clothing that they would write in .
Over the next several months, I proceeded to paint one sitter a week and listen to their stories. I listened attentively as I was led into landscapes of battles between Burma and Thailand, inescapable prisons in Uganda, heartbreak and romance throughout regions of Italy and Eastern Europe. Stories of running drugs, dodging drafts and never going home to see family for over three decades until they had all died - only to go home to see their grave sites. The stories one by one, took me on adventures throughout over a dozen lives, multitudes of countries, danger, romance, love, betrayal and sacrifice. All, while I painted.
Most of my sitters, I didn't know all that well when they first came to my studio. We were awkwardly social at the start of the session. But, a magic happens when you are staring into someone for three hours. It is a type of mystical attention that has a potency to create trust. Truth and confessions seem to have no problem coming out, helping alchemize the artwork in progress.
I found that as a newcomer to live portrait painting, I was able to oftentimes capture the essence of the sitter. Especially, such interesting people as the writers I was able to learn from. I also noticed that in several cases, the portraits looked a little bit older than the actual person sitting - however, perhaps that was just their souls coming out. In each case, the friends of the sitters commented on how the painting "felt " like the subject painted, and if they were alone in a room with the portrait, they would feel as if their friend was there, hanging on the wall watching them.
At the end of my three month deadline, I held a small opening at The Writer's Pub in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Many of the people posing in my portraits showed up for the event and had several stories of their sittings to then share with one another. It was quite entertaining and enjoyable. Enough so, that I would continue on my journey during a visit to New York City.
Materials to paint a portrait:
The New York City Portraits
Continuing my quest for interesting stories while painting, I decided to open the doors to invite people in from New York City. I figured that I would typically find subjects to paint through friends of friends.
I focused on musicians, which at the time were easy enough to find as my partner was making a rock CD and had many people collaborating on it with him. Joe Thompson, a singer/songwriter, was the first to sit for me in NYC. I had spent all of about thirty minutes with him prior to painting him. Throughout the painting we shared stories of boyfriends and girlfriends, traveling and family. Then, Becca Ayers sat. She was a Broadway actress and a singer/songwriter. The energy of painting New Yorkers was so much different from friends back in Chiang Mai. Their stories were electric and their emotions were flying, minds wandering. They were very much in process and on what I would call "go mode". As Chiang Mai has been referred to as a place to "find yourself or lose yourself", I would say the mode that emanated from my sitters in New York City would be the "do mode". It was a blast. The stories were oftentimes of people they had worked with, various jobs and prospects they were entwined with in the moment. They were filled with youthful and raw ambition.
Through my boyfriend, I met Anton Fig, the drummer for the David Letterman Band. He had a bit less time to sit, as he was in the midst of recording the show for that evening's television broadcast. He was a lovely man, who spoke kindly of his family and wanting to go on vacation and gave lots of new music for me to listen to coming from new singer/songwriters and bands.
I also decided, while I was back in painting mode, to paint one more author, David L. White. He is a playwright in New Jersey that had just published a book on Fantomas. Fantomas was a character from the turn of the century. A type of French surrealist James Bond. Suave, debonaire, and tricky. Someone who caused menace for the heck of it. I loved the idea, and painted the author as the character he wrote about.
And, on my final weeks of New York City, I randomly wandered into a Starbucks for a coffee and to people watch. I quickly noticed a man with a rainbow colored beard who was wearing a very fancy suit. I figured he must have some very interesting stories to tell. I happened to be reading a book on Color and had a fold up easel with me, (having come back from another portrait painting, which I have yet to finish at the time of writing this). I introduced myself to him and as it turned out, he was interested in being painted. His name is Mark Hudson and he was a television personality several years back. He also worked closely with The Beatles and The Monkees and more recently as a producer for Ringo Starr. He also wrote a song for the band Aerosmith that had won a Grammy. I actually had no idea of all of these things upon meeting him...To me, he was just a funky looking guy that already looked like a painting - I just wanted to put him on canvas. I learned all of this about him after I was already in his apartment painting him. He was a perfect storyteller.
So long as there are interesting people left on earth, I will always want to hear their stories and paint them as I listen. And, for those of you interested in painting and taking the time out of your own stories to listen to others, I highly recommend it. There's a lot to learn from other people, and you end up with some beautiful memories soaked into canvas.